Essay
IRL A lamentation on photography, intimacy, and the extreme present.
David Ashley Kerr

When I think about photography I immediately succumb to the virtual, online status of photographic ubiquity we know today. Writing about it in relation to both intimate memories and feelings helps me try to grasp onto what feels like at times a slippery ungraspable mass.


In sharp cold relief I recall the bush landscape while standing on the edge of the roof of my childhood farm shed in rural Australia as I held my trusty Nokia 3310 toward the fog-shrouded hills - in search of the elusive one bar of network service. This one bar would subsequently earn me the soon-to-be-infamous “break up text” my girlfriend had sent me. In the act of remembering this crucial teenage moment at the precipice of the postdigital era - it is an image of the physical landscape, framed as a photograph between my melancholic, sad boy eyes and etched into my emotional memory, that remains. It is not the content of the text that linger on - which now seem irrelevant, even counter-productive, to the memory, and with it, the authentic, tender feels manifested within.

Screenshot: google.com, created 2/5/2018

Today I trawl through the cacophony of photographic images on my now very smarter phone and see pensive figures not unlike how I imagined my-self standing on that shed roof, staged before romantic natural landscapes.


The Romantic era was a surge of energy released by the potential of an era of revolutions in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today we live in a similar era, but now the energy has no addressee and is extracted under the auspices of a liberation that no one really believes in.1


Looking online, Caspar David Friedrich´s Rückenfigur2 is now an algorithm for public-private introspection. My next profile pic. It says: I travel. I think about the big questions. I am fucking deep.


#beingmybestself


I quietly ruminate our obsession with representing nature as an outward manifestation of our very intimate, inner subjective states. A vestige of the Romantic era that we culturally shyly accept, yet hold no intrinsic value toward.


Last week I yelled at some millennials taking selfies on top of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial.


#yolo


I am witness to an increased prevalence of mirrors in museums around the world, mirrors whose sole presence is to encourage and enable our most ubiquitous mode of photographic self-portraiture. I also regret not making witty, grammable neon signs as an artist. Maybe there is still time.

Instagram, @sigh_swoon formerly @swoon_scream, November 10, 2017

I ask myself in moments of faux generational superiority: what happens to the aura of an artwork when our gaze comes from behind a mirror? Of mirrors and gazes, Lacan’s (via Freud’s) ’ego-ideal’ in our digital hyper present is perhaps not modelled on any one role model, any one thing or idea, but rather a mimetic mash-up of algorithmic assemblage.


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As Žižek elaborates on Lacan; “in mimicry I do not imitate the image I want to fit into, but those features of the image that seem to indicate that there is some hidden reality behind”.3 The graffitied angel wings I am posing in between don’t actually make me an angel, rather, they allude to the free spirited nature of my daily existence.


#photooftheday


My Avatar now caters to my manque-à-être4 as an omnipresent (no fomo) human leading their best life, or rather, ours, through forms of mediated voyeurism. It appears transiently mobile, free-range, and always organic. Out of blind passion for the darkness of digital culture, I follow the steady rise of aspiring influencers and New-Gen Britneys as they garner more followers, views, likes and branded content, in all their splendid banality, delusion and divine wisdom.


Seven signs you are becoming wise.


I dismount my generational high-horse for a moment to admire the sunset screensaver on my laptop.


I once bought a screensaver on a floppy disc. Not quite a digital native, my succumbing to our digital reality is at this point also a kind of numbing, and my feeling of what is real, both fragile and confused with the virtual.


You and your selfie are merging.5 The conflation of artist and persona.


Technophoria is a state of late capitalism that peddles the belief that our devices will satiate our human needs and desires.6 We feed the algorithm and it feeds us, in a myriad of new ways.


#instafood


#like4like


I mull all this over in a phase wherein I simultaneously like, match, text with several men and women of superficial physical attractiveness on various dating apps over unimaginable expanses.


A series of sentiments, desires and intimacies exchanged and projected from safe and orderly distances.


A meme ironically spurning my lack of physical romantic intimacy.

Screenshot, Tinder, Taken 16.12.2017

There´s no one new around you.


Did a romantic letter exchange of days gone contain the same series of intense, banal, exchanges? Perhaps, but certainly no dick pics, emojis or profile stalking. This then confronts the question, How do we exactly articulate desire and intimacy in our digital hyper present? And who possesses agency regarding our carefully crafted self-images? The still-very-present male gaze? The Surveillance State? Zuckerberg?


The often abstract nature of our online encounters with one another is certainly exciting, and photography arguably still plays a pivotal role in all of this, or rather, the digital photographic image does. The camera always lies. The lens does not.


Our desires (and anxieties) are now more easily communicable, articulated, and diversified, more than ever. With that said, “Rarely has an epoch been so violently shaken by desires, and rarely has desire been so empty”.7


And while we are down here in this melancholic ether, Douglas Coupland mentioned recently the phenomena of VR Sadness8, which essentially amounts to the sense of disappointment at the sudden limitations of the real world after experiencing Virtual Reality.


You know that we are living in a(n) (im)material world


And I am a(n) (im)material girl9


Real life, it seems, is not enough. With the advent of advanced VR in the next decade, we can now look forward to the dulling down of our sense of the real world as it itself begins to shut down. As Nora Turato aptly puts it, and since the world is ending, I want what I want so avidly.10


The raw teenage emotion and simultaneous desire I experienced IRL, if re-staged in such a way as one regularly sees now, would perhaps do very little to reproduce those tender feels, and that intimate memory in all its bitter clarity. But let's not get sentimental.

Nora Turato, 'sentiments are okay sentimentality is not', 2018, 84.1 x 118.9 cm, inkjet-print on semi-glossy photo paper. courtesy of the artist and LambdaLambdaLambda

There are a new set of rules, it seems, and “the issue now.. is to come up with a critical inquiry that could introduce a moral compass into this new language, this new set of rules”.11 The post modern irony we valued so much at the advent of internet culture is now somewhere else, someplace darker and irrevocably self-aware, like mould gathering in a dank corner where the dankest of memes are cultivated.


To return finally to my decadent melancholic personal anecdote, certain photographs depicting Australian bush landscapes carry with them an inherent magic, and with this mystical quality enable the potential to evoke the deep emotional Affects of a once (always) angst riddled teenager with a Nokia 3310 pointed to the hills.

Linsey Gosper, 'Untitled', 2011, from the series Alone in my Room, courtesy the artist.

It is the supposed truth-telling capacity of our beloved photographic image that seems to allow my sense of reality to slip toward this romantic emotional memory of both expectation and isolation. Whether the same slippage may occur through the myriad of new artificialities in which we use photography online to construct images and memories today, perhaps remains to be seen, and to be felt.


#love


  1. <p>Wood, Brian Kuan (2014) <em>Is It Love?</em>, e-flux Journal #53, <a href="https://www.e-flux.com/journal/53/59897/is-it-love/">https://www.e-flux.com/journal/53/59897/is-it-love/</a> Accessed 20/05/16&#160;<a href="#fnref1:1" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>
  2. <p>Literally meaning ´Back Figure´ in German, the <em>Rückenfigur</em> is a visual device in which a typically lone figure is seen from behind in the foreground of an image, and where the viewer can self identify with the proxy human figure. It is commonly associated with German Romantic painting, particularly the landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. Koerner, Joseph Leo (2009) <em>Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape</em>, 2nd edition, London: Reaktion Books&#160;<a href="#fnref1:2" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>
  3. <p>Žižek, Slavoj (2006) Lacan as a Reader of Mohammad Bouyeri, in, <em>How to read Lacan</em>, London: Granta Books, p116 &#160;<a href="#fnref1:3" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>
  4. <p>Bound together with desire, <em>a lack of being</em>, or <em>manque-à-être</em>, is Lacan´s theory that a lack causes one to desire, and that the lack of being is at the heart of the analytic experience. Lacan, Jacques (1977). <em>Écrits.</em> London: Tavistock Publications. p. 281 &#160;<a href="#fnref1:4" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>
  5. <p>Coupland, Douglas, <em>You and your selfie are merging</em>, Slogans for the 21st Century, 2011-2014. &#160;<a href="#fnref1:5" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>
  6. <p>Kholeif, Omar (2018) <em>Navigating the Debris of our Digital World</em>, in, <em>Goodbye World! Looking at Art in the Digital Age</em>, Berlin and New York: Sternberg Press, p89.&#160;<a href="#fnref1:6" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>
  7. <p>Tiqqun (2012), <em>Putting an End to the Young-Girl</em>, in, <em>Preliminary Material For a Theory of the Young-Girl</em>, Semiotext(e), Cambridge: The MIT Press, p133.&#160;<a href="#fnref1:7" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>
  8. <p>Birnbaum, Daniel &amp; Coupland, Douglas (2018), <em>VR, The Hottest Medium,</em> in, <em>More than Real: Art in the Digital Age</em>, 2018 Verbier Art Summit, Köln: Walther König, p54.&#160;<a href="#fnref1:8" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>
  9. <p>Brown, Peter, and Rans, Robert, (1985) <em>Material Girl</em>, From the Album <em>Like A Virgin</em> (Madonna), 7-Inch, California: Warner Bros. &#160;<a href="#fnref1:9" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>
  10. <p>Turato, Nora, (2018) <em>and since the world is ending, I want what I want so avidly</em>, Inkjet-print on photo-paper, clear coat finish 84.1 x 118.9 cm, Courtesy the Artist and <a href="http://www.lambdalambdalambda.org/">lambdalambdalambda</a>, Prishtina, Kosovo.&#160;<a href="#fnref1:10" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>
  11. <p>Eliasson, Olafur, <em>But doesn't the body matter?</em>, in, <em>More than Real: Art in the Digital Age</em>, 2018 Verbier Art Summit, Köln: Walther König, p164.&#160;<a href="#fnref1:11" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">&#8617;</a></p>